A century ago, Philadelphia’s leaders plowed through the industrialized northwest quadrant of Center City to create the lush, Parisian-inspired boulevard we now call the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Some saw the mile-long diagonal between City Hall and the Art Museum as an American version of the Champs-Élysées, lined with museums, elegant apartments, and cafes. Others thought it would be just fine as a series of landscaped gardens.
But it’s a good bet that the French landscape architect who laid out the Parkway, Jacques Gréber, never envisioned that its elegant allees of London plane trees would one day be taken over by sound stages, food vendors, merch tents, carnival rides, and block-long arrays of portable toilets. There is probably no worse place to see a concert than from the far end of the long, narrow Parkway.
It seems fitting that the city is launching a 14-month celebration of the Parkway’s centennial just as the heaps of trash from last weekend’s Made in America extravaganza are being hauled away. The anniversary events, which begin Friday and focus on high-toned cultural offerings, are a painful reminder that we still haven’t figured out what the Parkway should be. Is it Philadelphia’s signature cultural destination? A made-for-television event space? A gorgeous highway to sprint commuters in and out of Center City? Or a Central Park for all residents to enjoy?
Whichever you prefer, the Parkway fails at all of them.
Because the grand diagonal has never lived up to its billing as a lively Champs-Élysées, it has defaulted into a prime-time stage set where tens of thousands of unpaid extras gather so cameras can film mega events like the NFL draft or the July 4 fireworks against the stunning backdrop of the Art Museum. The Parkway has also become the route of choice for races and parades.
The frequency of such events means the boulevard is regularly unusable as either a park or a street on the weekends between March and September, a period that area residents jokingly call “Parkway Season.” Since it can take days to assemble and then break down the security fences for events like Made in America, the inconvenience and detours bleed into the workweek.
“You feel like your neighborhood has been invaded, and you never know how you’re going to get home,” says Diana Lind, a Fairmount resident who recently started a Facebook group called “People for a Better Parkway.” So much territory was cordoned off for the draft and Made in America, she added, that there were long stretches with no usable sidewalks, and pedestrians were forced into the street. These ticketed events, it should be noted, are yet another instance of the city turning over public parkland to for-profit enterprises.
The city has finally begun to acknowledge that the festivities might be too much of a good thing and has embarked on a study to develop a management strategy. The cultural institutions want to contain the number of weekend events because they depress attendance, undercutting one of the Parkway’s main reasons for being. And the rapidly densifying neighborhoods to the north and south of the Parkway are also eager to tame the frequent street closures and ear-shattering noise that come with the music festivals.
Given that it’s taken a hundred years to get this far, don’t expect the Parkway to be transformed overnight.
The new study would be at least the fourth attempt in two decades to address the Parkway’s design flaws. In 1999, Paul Levy’s Central Philadelphia Development Corp. came up with an outline for a radical overhaul that included mid-rise apartments and new cultural venues. Levy also wanted to create more usable park space by consolidating the traffic lanes and widening the central median in a more generous green way.
Unfortunately, the suggestions were too radical for the Philadelphia of the late ’90s. In 2013, city parks officials proposed a more modest fix called More Park, Less Way, which offered a series of low-cost programming ideas to lure people to the Parkway daily, not just for big events. The annual summer beer garden at Eakins Oval has been the main result, although a major renovation of the playground at the Van Colln ball field is coming. The opening of the Barnes Foundation five years ago gave people another reason to visit the Parkway.
Levy’s report did spur the city to undertake several improvements to lessen the automobile’s dominance. Sidewalks and crosswalks have been reconfigured with pedestrians in mind, especially on the north side of Logan Square, where two plazas were just expanded. But you still can’t buy so much as a bottle of water in the half-mile between the Barnes and the Art Museum. Nor will you find a restroom.
Compared to the elegant boulevard Gréber envisioned a century ago, today’s Parkway is more like “the Streets Department version” of the Champs-Élysées, says David Brownlee, a Penn professor who wrote the definitive history of the Parkway, Building the City Beautiful.
“Even with these incremental changes, it’s still not a place you want to be,” acknowledges Harris Steinberg, who oversaw the More Park, Less Way study, and who now heads Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. Despite decades of discussion, there is still no easy way to cross safely from Eakins Oval to the Art Museum, the Parkway’s biggest draw. “I believe the way to bring people and activity is through mixed use,” he says.
Before that can happen, the city will have to figure out how to move some events off the Parkway. The answer could come with the construction of the Penn’s Landing cap, an 11-acre park and amphitheater that will connect Front Street in Old City with the Delaware waterfront. Unlike other parks around the city that could easily accommodate big concerts, only the cap promises to rival the Parkway with a television-ready backdrop: the Center City skyline. Nearly square in shape, it also promises far better viewing than the linear Parkway. Plus, it’s easily accessible by transit.
We’ll just have to wait until 2023 for it to be completed. Maybe then we can get serious about finishing the Parkway as it was meant to be.